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Book Review

Searching for Truth in a War-Torn Land

CHIENNE DE GUERRE, A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya, \o7 Anne Nivat, translated from the French by Susan Darnton\f7 , Public Affairs, $25, 256 Pages

July 06, 2001|PAULA FRIEDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In September 1999, French reporter Anne Nivat wrapped herself in layers of thick skirts, wool sweaters and long scarves to pass for a Chechen woman because, as she put it, "women are rarely noticed in Chechnya, and so I could be very discreet. People looked right through me or forgot I was there." It was the beginning of the current Russian-Chechen conflict; Nivat had tried to obtain ad hoc accreditation as a war correspondent but was refused by the Russians. Undaunted, Nivat, who had worked in the Soviet Union as Moscow correspondent for the French newspaper Liberation, decided to cover the war from Chechnya, hardly stopping to think about the dangers involved.

Fluent in Russian, Nivat felt she could travel without need of a translator, and for the next six months, she led a life underground with her Chechen guide, Islam, seeking to understand the elusive causes of the second Russian-Chechen war.

The Truth Combined Two Different Views

Unsurprisingly, Nivat discovered multiple answers. The Chechens, she writes, view the Russians as imperialistic and murderous, while the Russians consider the Chechens nothing more than brutal terrorists. Nivat would conclude that the truth combined--though not necessarily in equal parts--both views. The one thing she found absolute was the nagging horror of living in a region so relentlessly disabled by war: "I lived through hell. I experienced the kind of fear that wipes out any other thought or feeling, that makes your mouth dry. I felt deep solidarity with dozens of anonymous individuals with whom I shared moments of raw horror and moments of pure joy. I felt the intense happiness of small, fleeting pleasures--a glass of hot, black tea; a glint of sun off the snow-capped mountains. But mostly I felt cold and tired .... " While the first Russian-Chechen war took place between 1994 and 1996, with Chechnya gaining de facto independence after overpowering the Russians, the second war began in 1999 with several weeks of nonstop Russian bombings of the separatist province. According to the Russians, they were trying to "liberate Chechnya from the grip of international terrorists." Liberation, Nivat decided, had little to do with Russia's motives.

Armed against their "liberators" were the "boyvikis," the Russian word for pro-independence Chechens. But Nivat would find that alliances were far more muddied than she anticipated, with the Wahabis (Islamic extremists known to resort to all sorts of brutalities) trying to enlist Chechens on "their side of the Jihad, the holy war. From a Chechen acquaintance named Umar, Nivat learned the Russians had professed their first priority to be wiping out the Wahabis. The funny thing about that, Umar pointed out, is that the Wahabis' base had never been bombed.

Puzzling Inconsistencies in the Official Line

Everywhere Nivat turned, she found some puzzling inconsistency with the official line, no matter whose line it was. In the small village of Mitchurino, in the Chechen suburbs, Nivat encountered Daud, an old man who had long been involved in his province's problems. Daud told Nivat that the Chechen problem is an "absence of leaders," and went on to say that he and his people were "all victims, manipulated by the politicians in Moscow." Another Chechen acquaintance, Dudayev, explained that thus far the Russians have only been fighting the civilian population and the Chechen refugees, gaining easy victories. Without exception, Nivat found that all Chechens spoke of Russian atrocities, of torture and summary executions.

Later, Nivat traveled to the Chechen capital of Grozny, where some of the heaviest battle is taking place. Seeking refuge in a village home, she hides in the kitchen with other family members during the heavy shelling. Nivat's descriptions of what it was like, for herself and for these civilians, is poignant and chilling. The grandmother lies against the wall in a room adjoining the kitchen. Nivat knows the old woman is almost deaf but presumes she can hear what's going on outside by the fearful comments she makes. "During a moment's pause, she [the grandmother] shouts out suddenly, 'Is there anyone still alive?' Her voice is hoarse and tense .... A powerful blast blows me right off the sofa where I was sitting, bolt upright, cottonmouthed, staring vacantly into space."

Nivat also discusses the peculiar role that money plays in the Russian-Chechen conflict, for combatants and civilians. Russian officers and soldiers often traffic in whatever they can lay their hands on, including Chechen civilians who are kidnapped and held until ransom is paid. The corpses of boyviki are often sold and sometimes resold to family and friends by the Russians. Near the end of her six-month stint in Chechnya, Nivat witnesses a terrifying Russian raid, believing it is she they have come to arrest. When Nivat's disguise is discovered by the Russians, her reporting work in Chechnya is finished, at least for the time being. For now, Nivat's ability to sketch in the many twisty shadows of this war, making clear her sympathy for the Chechens without painting them as angels, provides us with a disturbingly informative read.

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